Low-traffic neighbourhoods: why residents’ exemptions are a bad idea

Londoners are increasingly familiar with the concept of low-traffic neighbourhoods, with a number being rapidly rolled out by boroughs in response to Covid-19. The aim is to make residential areas safer, less polluted, less congested, and more pleasant for everyone by ensuring that through motor traffic stays on the main roads rather than “rat running” through people’s neighbourhoods. Low-traffic neighbourhoods involve placing strategic closure points on residential streets, which are usually physical barriers, such as planter boxes and bollards – but some are simply signposted and camera-enforced.

Most people seem to broadly agree that non-local drivers should, as far as possible, remain on the arterial main roads rather than attempting to find shortcuts through residential backstreets. The rationale for this is self-evident: main roads are, almost by definition, far better suited to carrying large volumes of motor traffic. They also often have various features which somewhat mitigate its negative impacts, including relatively wide pavements, pedestrian crossings, protected bike lanes, speed cameras, building frontages which are set back further from the road, and – in the case of newer buildings on main roads – specific architectural features which minimise noise and pollution inside.

However, we’ve seen a few people saying that they agree with low-traffic neighbourhoods in principle, but that they want camera-enforced closures which exempt all residents’ vehicles, rather than bollards, planters, or bus gateways. After all, they argue, aren’t drivers from outside the area the target, not residents? Some even claim that not exempting residents actually increases traffic and pollution, as local drivers will sometimes have to make slightly longer journeys. But these arguments do not hold water under scrutiny, and residents’ exemptions are not a harmless compromise. This article offers six reasons why low-traffic neighbourhoods must be implemented without residents’ exemptions.

1. Residents’ exemptions will actually increase car use and congestion in our borough

The benefits of reducing motor traffic and increasing walking and cycling in an inner London borough such as Tower Hamlets are enormous. We desperately need to reduce the local pollution, carbon emissions, noise, road danger and community severance which high traffic levels bring about, as well as enabling people to increase their levels of physical activity by building active travel into their daily lives. And as our borough has the fastest growing population in the country, there soon simply won’t be space for Tower Hamlets residents to own and use cars at the current level.

In this context, therefore, it’s important to be clear that low-traffic neighbourhoods are not a zero-sum game, simply shifting motor traffic from one place to another. Instead, they make walking, cycling and public transport more comfortable, safe, pleasant and convenient, while making short car journeys slightly less convenient. As such, the relative attractiveness of different modes changes, and people’s transport choices will over time therefore change accordingly. This means that much traffic will simply evaporate as people choose to use cars less, while the traffic which remains will stay largely on the main roads (where it can be better accommodated).

A residents’ exemption would have the exact opposite effect: short local journeys by car would become more attractive, as residents wouldn’t face competition for road space from non-local drivers. Residents’ exemptions would therefore encourage modal shift towards cars for the short local journeys which could most feasibly be walked or cycled. In Tower Hamlets, the borough transport strategy rightly aims to halve residents’ car use over the next 20 years, but this target cannot be met if policies which encourage short local car journeys are pursued. 

If residents’ exemptions were allowed, there would therefore be little change to the status quo on the roads: cars would still be everywhere, and walking and cycling would not be enabled. And if we fail to reduce (or, indeed, actually increase) overall motor traffic as part of a low-traffic neighbourhood – which would be the result of a residents’ exemption – these schemes really would simply be shifting traffic around, which could also result in unmanageable increases in traffic on main roads.

2. Residents’ exemptions mean no pocket parks or other public realm improvements

One major advantage of low-traffic neighbourhoods is that physical closure points provide a great opportunity for public realm improvements. These can be minor – a couple of trees and bike stands, for example – or much more substantial, such as the large pocket park currently being installed on Old Bethnal Green Rd. Combined with the reduction in motor traffic, these are a great way of enabling local communities to reclaim ownership of and start to enjoy their public space.

If residents are exempt, closure points would be nothing more than some paint on the road, a signpost and an enforcement camera. None of these wider public realm benefits would be possible. 

3. Non-physical closure points are less effective: people will just drive through

With physical closure points, compliance is 100%: people simply can’t drive through. However, if a closure point relies on just signs with camera enforcement, some non-exempt people will drive through and residential streets will continue to suffer from rat-running, meaning the low traffic neighbourhood fails. And while some people may take the view that the fines incurred would be useful income for the council, low-traffic neighbourhoods should be there to provide benefits to the community rather than raise revenue – and doubtless those who are fined would complain bitterly if they feel like they’re being treated as a cash cow. With physical closure points, none of these problems exist.

4. Residents’ exemptions mean a lot of expensive admin for the council

A low-traffic neighbourhood with physical closure points requires minimal ongoing spending once it is in place. Where camera-controlled closure points do have to be used – on bus routes, for example – it’s a bit more complicated, but vehicles which are allowed through are easily identifiable. However, an area-wide residents’ exemption introduces huge new complexities. The council would need to keep track of thousands of exempt vehicle registrations, confront difficult questions on eligibility, maintain dozens of enforcement cameras, and pursue people making fraudulent registrations. 

Before long, there would be an entire department at the Town Hall dealing with residents’ exemptions. Given the current severe pressures on council budgets, paying for the various costs around residents’ exemptions to low-traffic neighbourhoods simply isn’t a sensible use of public money.

5. Residents can be rat runners too

Most people agree that it’s better that drivers remain on the main roads for as much of their journeys as possible, rather than cutting through residential streets. That principle applies to drivers who live locally just as much as it does to those from outside the area.

What does that mean in practice? To give a real life example, many of the requests for a residents’ exemption to the Wapping bus gate appeared to come from people who simply wanted to “jump the queue” on The Highway by driving as far as possible east-west through the cobbled streets of Wapping itself, rather than joining the A-road at their earliest opportunity. Equally, in Bow any car owners living on Aberavon Road in the south-west corner of the scheme area who want to drive northbound on the A12 would ideally take Mile End Road and Bow Road to the Bow roundabout; a residents’ exemption to the proposed bus gate would allow an alternative rat running route through Bow’s residential streets.

6. If you have to make a compromise, don’t pick this one

We hope that you now agree that residents’ exemptions to low-traffic neighbourhoods are fundamentally a bad idea. But you might still be thinking “OK, they’re not ideal, but perhaps it’d be an acceptable trade-off if there’s a risk a low-traffic neighbourhood wouldn’t get through at all”. 

However, allowing residents’ exemptions will make implementing further low-traffic neighbourhoods without such exemptions much harder. Superficially a residents’ exemption looks like having your cake and eating it: the arguments against them are strong but subtle, and many people won’t immediately see them. And any residents’ exemptions would be politically very difficult to remove in the future, meaning that high levels of car use for short local journeys would be locked in for another generation.

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